Marine Biology
Biofluorescence occurring

Researchers discover large diversity of biofluorescent fish exists

Biofluorescence occurring
Leigh Goessl's image for:
"Researchers discover large diversity of biofluorescent fish exists"
Caption: Biofluorescence occurring
Image by: Screenshot taken from YouTube/American Museum Natural History
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Biofluorescene is a spectacular creation of nature. It is a phenomenon, as Wired puts it, "a few lucky animals, such as jellyfish and corals," have observed, but it is not something man has ever gotten a good glimpse of to see exactly what happens when it occurs. That is, until now. Research, led by scientists from the American Museum of Natural History, have published the first report of its kind that provides a lot more insight on biofluorescent organisms than has been previously known.

What is biofluorescence?

In the deep seas there are two terms to describe these bright beauties—biofluorescence and bioluminescence. The difference between the two is biofluorescent organisms absorb light from an external source, while bioluminescent ones get their glow from a chemical reactions that occur internally and emit light outward, as Live Science explains.

When biofluorescence occurs, the organism absorbs the light and transforms it, projecting the light as another color. Humans have long been aware of biofluorescence in some organisms, but what they didn't know was the extent it occurs in fish, said the museum in a blog post.

What scientists have discovered

Once thought to be relatively rare, scientists have recently discovered more than 180 species of biofluorescent fish swimming under the sea, illuminating the wide variety of colors and patterns that exist in the fish—both cartilaginous and bony. The team of researchers, which included members from Yale University, University of Kansas and University of Haifa, Israel, along with photographers and videographers, went on four "high-tech" night time expeditions in the Bahamas and Solomon Islands.

The project, led by John Sparks, a curator in the Museum's Department of Ichthyology, found the fish are absorbing the blues primarily found in deep waters being absorbed and transformed into emitting neon greens, oranges and reds.

"We've long known about biofluorescence underwater in organisms like corals, jellyfish, and even in land animals like butterflies and parrots, but fish biofluorescence has been reported in only a few research publications," said Sparks.

The fish appear normal under "regular" light, but in the deep waters look completely different. Using modern technology, researchers have now been able to watch how this remarkable transformation occurs as it cannot be seen by the human eye. It is believed the fish use the lighting to camouflage or communicate for mating.

"By designing scientific lighting that mimics the ocean's light along with cameras that can capture the animals' fluorescent light, we can now catch a glimpse of this hidden biofluorescent universe," said co-lead author David Gruber, an associate professor of biology at Baruch College and a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History. "Many shallow reef inhabitants and fish have the capabilities to detect fluorescent light and may be using biofluorescence in similar fashions to how animals use bioluminescence, such as to find mates and to camouflage."

Images of the fish's coloring was captured as seen by the human eye and then using special filters, another set of images were shot in the darkness using special filters that revealed by biofluorescence. The museum has posted some images in a follow up blog post.

What this finding means

Aside from the remarkable knowledge area this opens up for exploring, this finding could have some other potential meaning as well. While just the diversity of biofluorescent fish in itself is quite amazing, this discovery may also provide more insight and meaningful development in the human world. According to a Jan. 8, 2014 press release issued by the American Museum of Natural History, the finding "opens the door for the discovery of new fluorescent proteins that could be used in biomedical research."

Full findings and report were published on Jan. 8, 2014 in PLOS ONE journal.

More about this author: Leigh Goessl

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